Saturday, August 15, 2009

New York, New York!

I'm eating moldy sawdust, or what the airline-issued cardboard box claims is coffee cake. "For those of you sitting on the left-hand side of the aircraft, you can see the lights of Havana, Cuba as we pass above it," the pilot announces. I glance outside, mid-bite.

I guess this is where I should be sentimental. I should reflect on my last six weeks in Peru and list the ways in which it has changed me. I should dedicate this blog to all that I will miss.

But that's not what I'm thinking right now as I look at Cuba.
CUBA. I'm out of Peru. I'm heading HOME.
I try to summon sentimentality, but it doesn't come.

Don't get me wrong - You would have to offer me a handsome sum to snatch these last six weeks away from me. I got to share an ecologist's enthusiasm for sticky liquids, to listen to an Amazon artisan sing native tales as she weaves her chambira, to play in a soup of tadpoles. I liked this adventure.

But all along, I knew I was going home. I came as a traveler, passing through moments of people's lives. I made friends, but I knew I would soon leave them. We would probably never see each other again. But knowing this made our limited time together better. We sang, we danced, we talked, and we didn't do it for a future friendship. All we had was this one song.

In Chino, Angel and I sang Te Amo by Makano until I could spit out all the lyrics with only minor slurring. On the airplane, I plug in my earphones and listen to Makano. "He's just not that into you" is playing on the TV above my seat, but I choose Makano. In this way, I wave good-bye to Peru. This is the extent of my sentimentality.

I feel heavy. I did not sleep last night. I went out to a karaoke bar and discoteca with Yully and Angel. And then it was 5 a.m. and I was taking a motorkar to the Iquitos airport.
Now I fall asleep to Cuba and Makano. "Espera, por favor no te vayas..."

This adventure was everything it should have been. I had fun. I was challenged. And now I have a new adventure waiting for me at home. I have a new apartment, five new classes, a new writing gig, several new bellydances to learn, a brother that's getting married in October, a mom with a new brick house, and Argentinian tango lessons with my Malibu.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the seatbelt sign is now on." New York's hodgepodge of lights stretches out below me. I'm HOME. My stomach lurches. Maybe it's excitement, or maybe it's the coffee cake.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Monday morning at sunrise our boat from Jenaro Herrera arrives in Iquitos. We hang around the city for four days. Campbell, Angel and Yully run a few distillations with the copal resin that we brought back from Jenaro Herrera. Copal smell saturates Campbell's hotel room (and hallway, and lobby).

Between experiments, Campbell runs around Iquitos in a hurried attempt to get an export permit. If he doesn't get all the paperwork signed and stamped before he leaves for Lima, he won't be able to take the hundreds of oil, resin and bug samples out of Peru. I intentionally distance myself from this process. The mind-numbing boredom of official-looking stacks of papers utterly terrifies me.

I eat a cone of coconut ice cream, every day.
I discuss roots and ocelot furs with the vendors of Belen and buy nine packs of mapacho (nicotiana rustica) cigars.

I spend an afternoon watching a street artist, Tomas, paint a Borra woman on a t-shirt. He sells each t-shirt for $15. He also creates bed-sized paintings, but he only works on those after taking ayahuaska. "When I have ayahuaska, I see the gods and godesses, " Tomas saya. "And that is what I put down on my canvas." In his paintings, frogs, raindroplets and nipples swirl out of rivers. Tomas tells me about his dead grandfather, who used to be a shaman. According to Tomas, his grandfather's bones continue to cure cancer patients. "My grandfather was like a god."

I watch a Hallmark movie dubbed in Spanish. The speakers' voices are all high-pitched and scratchy.
I spend $10 on Internet at a cafe that costs $0.70 per hour. I obviously miss my Internets, not to mention my Skype contacts.

Friday morning we leave for Chino, still fretting about signatures and still copying paperwork on our way to port.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

An update on CACE´s research: from weevils to bees

Every resin lump in the copal plantations at Jenaro Herrera has its story.

Angel Raygada (from Iquitos) and Milano and Itolo (two brothers from Jenaro Herrera) have been helping CACE write down these lump stories for more than three years.

CACE monitors about 170 copal trees at the station. I´ve chosen three lucky winners to introduce to you.
Number ONE

That ball between the legs of this copal tree is an orchid bee nest. These green bees made this nest mostly out of copal resin, with a bit of mud mixed in.

Two months ago, Itolo spotted a green stingless bee on the nest. The bee crawled around the lump, left something (maybe resin?), and then buzzed away. This sighting is significant; we already knew that bees collect resin, but this is the first time we can correlate resin collection with nest building.

Yes, this bee actually is green! It's flashy like a disco ball.

Number TWO

Angel and Itolo have been monitoring this tree for three years. They mark every resin lump with a white tag, as you see above. This big guy has 20 white tags, but no lumps. That's because someone stole all the lumps a few months ago, effectively trashing three years of data. The thieves probably used the resin to caulk their boat.
Goes to show that even protected research stations aren't always protected.

But this guy is making a comeback. Campbell and I found a live weevil inside one of the cone traps. This trap takes advantage of the insect's ability to climb upwards and inability to navigate steep downhills. The weevil climbed up into the trap through a hole, but now he can't get down through that same hole.
And that enables us to take a good look at him. He is candy-corn sized, with brown scaly legs and a chunky torso:

Number THREE

This lump asks, "Can weevils and bees live together?"

The light brown patch is the remnant of a weevil respiratory tube. For four months, the weevil larvae would periodically stick their head through the thin film of resin at the end of the tube. After a few minutes, the larvae would slide back down the tube, creating suction, which in turn enabled the resin to flow back into the tube, sealing the entrance.
We assume that these weevil larvae navigate up and down the tube in order to catch a breath of air.

Two months ago, the respiratory tube closed. We think that the larvae are still inside, and that their mother is still feeding them. Campbell hypothesizes that the tube has closed because the larvae are now going through an advanced larvae instar (sub-stage).

(The scientific community still doesn't know much about the life cycle of the weevil. Hence, the abundance of assumptions, thoughts, and hypothesis.)

At about the same time that the respiratory tube closed, another tube formed on top of the lump. Itolo says that this structure looks like the entrance of an orchid bee nest.

Itolo is going to fasten a trap around the lump in order to catch any weevil or bee adults that emerge from the resin as they mature. Neither Itolo nor Campbell have ever seen a lump with both weevil and bee activity. This could be the first!

These lump stories don't directly affect our production of essential oil from copal resin. They are primarily for educational, not commercial, purposes.

These tales teach us more about the fascinating relationships among resin, weevils, bees and copal trees. They encourage us to question:

If we take away this resin, what else will we change indirectly?
When we pull on this small, knotted string, how many big strings do we pull with it?
If we take away our tropical forests, what happens to us?
Maybe not much, but maybe a lot.
We don't know, not yet.

These lumps add to our understanding of ecology, of how our world works, of us.

Meet Edith

Edith Ramirez dips a blade of grass into yellow paint and squiggles feathers on an owl carved out of balsa wood. Edith specializes in painting earrings because she likes "all the little things in life," she says.

Before Edith joined the Kolping artisan association at Jenaro Herrera, she lived according to a timeline of big things, not little.

At age 17, Edith decided to become a nun. She joined a monastery in Lima, but then quit four years later. "There were too many rules," Edith says.

Edith moved to Pucallpa (a jungle city notorious for crime and drug trafficking), got a boyfriend, and worked in a book store. During the workday, she lost herself in mystery and romance novels. "But of course, the Bible was still my favorite book," Edith says. "It tells you everything."

At the time, Edith did not know that her boyfriend, Arturo Pizarro, was a leader of Sendero Luminoso, a Peruvian terrorist organization.

One evening, Edith was walking home from the bookstore when two men on motorcycles pulled up alongside her. They threatened to kill Edith if she did not come with them. The men locked Edith in a dark room for three days without food or drink.

When they released her, the men said, "You can go, because your lover gave us what we wanted."

That was 14 years ago. Edith never saw her boyfriend again. She assumes that he is dead.

Afraid that her life was still in danger, Edith fled to Jenaro Herrera, her hometown. She made a living by painting toucans and selling them to tourists.

"When I paint, I relax," Edith says.

Edith is determined to not die "just an artisan."

Edith´s dream is to build a pharmacy in Jenaro Herrera. According to Edith, the government clinic lacks basic medicine. In the last two years, three people have died of snake bites because the clinic did not have anti-venom in stock.

"I will give them anti-venom. It´s that simple," Edith says.

Edith hangs the owl earrings to dry in the sun on a clothesline, along with 10 other owls.

She sells the earrings for four soles per pair. The license for her dream pharmacy costs 3000 soles. "That's 750 pairs of earrings. 1,500 owls, snakes and toucans," Edith calculates. "Not bad."

The Unheard

11 p.m., and my eyes won´t close. I flick on my headlamp, and a cockroach waves "hello!" to me with his meandering antennae.

He freezes to let me get a good look at him. "If Yully were here, she would stomp you into a pancake with her rubber boot," I tell him. The antennae laugh.

You´re right, I won´t kill you because I don´t want to get my boot dirty with your goo. Better moving and solid than still and gooey, I reason.

This cockroach would be beautiful if he wasn´t creepy, disgusting and the length of my middle finger. He shines back like a mahogany coffee table accented with yellow crayon doodles.

I spot his friend on the cement floor. She is coffee and milk with flecks of black coffee grinds.
OK, seven more hours until daylight, and I need a new hobby.

I crack open The Unheard: a memoir of deafness and Africa by John Swiller.

The title sounds heavy. I expect it to try to guilt trip me into feeling sorry for Africa and deaf people, and then to remind me about how beautiful poor communities really are! I´m already mad at Josh because he´s about to transform that stupid infommercial -- the one with that old, white guy and skinny, sad African girl -- into a 265-page rant, and I´m not in the mood. You´re not going to make me get all depressed about the state of the world, Josh!

Josh shuts me up once I start reading the book. I´m happy to say that he does not live up to any of my expectations.

The Unheard isn´t so much about deafness or Africa, as it is about dealing with people in general, and coming to terms with yourself. Josh arrives in Zambia as a (sorta) deaf Peace Corps volunteer with high hopes to "save" Africa. But all of his projects fail. He spends most of his time arguing with the community headmen, playing chess, weighing babies at the town clinic, and sharing Playboy with his friends.

Josh tells his story with lots of periods and quotation marks; his sentences are witty and short, with the perfect degree of descriptive.

Josh doesn´t offer us any great insight into the state of humanity. He doesn´t pretend to know more about the world than the average reader (me). In this way, the book feels like a conversation.

I´m itching to share the last sentence of the book (my favorite), but I don´t want to ruin the ending for you.

Sucky title, great read.
The antennae wiggle in agreement, and the night exhales with daybreak.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What $170 does

CACE gives 20% of its handicraft sales back to the community. This year, the artisans of Jenaro Herrera earned 500 soles, or about $170, for their town´s school.

Campbell asked Elox Pacaxa, principal of Jenaro Herrera school, what his school needed, and Elox drafted a wish list.

We bought most of the items at Jenaro Herrera´s biggest general store -- the kind of place that sells cake, cola, t-shirts on robocop manequinns, butter by the spoonful, notebooks, machetes and miscellaneous buttons in four-liter jugs.

Elox read his wish list to the store owner (shirtless, with hairy nipples).

This is what $170 buys at Jenaro Herrera:

1 Hewlett Packard printer
3 ink cartridges for printer
3000 pages of computer paper
2 dozen bottles of toilet cleaner
2 dozen brooms
500 pages of drawing paper
48 packets of ACE detergent
1 kilogram of rubber cement
2 locks
10 colored poster boards
20 pills for pain and infections
5 packets of Vick´s vapor rub
1bottle of disinfectant
1 white-out pen
3 pens

What happened to my windows

In four days at Jenaro Herrera field station, I broke two windows in my house, intentionally.

This research station is made with the needs and wants of scientists in mind. I get my own house, with a splotchy mirror, electricity for four hours each evening, a toilet that usually flushes, and three empty bedrooms. I think all the space is for my nonexistent equipment and experiments.

And I get two locks -- one for my bedroom, and the other for the front door -- and four keys.

The locks and keys are what did it.

You see, I am not a scientist. When my bedroom doorknob fell off and tumbled into a spiderweb (with spider), I did not fix it. I left it there.

I watched the spider explore the remnants of her web. She peeked into the cavity of the knob, obviously more curious than distraught in the face of destruction. I sketched the inquisitive creature on a square of toilet paper. Then my attention wavered, and I drew how the torn, lacy curtain plasters against my window in the late afternoon.

And then I left for dinner.

Since I am not a scientist, I did not contemplate the inner workings of the lock. I left my bedroom keys in my bedroom, assuming that a broken lock does not lock.

Obviously, the broken lock locked.

The groundskeeper did not have a spare. He had attached the spare to the original "to better keep track of it." He handed me a hammer, pointed to the window, and said that he would be back in a few minutes to help me in. I did not wait, because "a few" in Peruvian time means half an hour in Natalya time.

Clearly, this story would be much more dramatic if the window were made out of glass. But I just had to lift a few wooden planks and rip through the mosquito netting. They shouldn´t even bother with the locks.

As I swung my legs into the house, a clump of researchers passed by my house. Two of them noted my flailing silouhette, and the whites of their eyes popped. They quickened their step. If they realized that someone was breaking in, they never let on.

I climbed in, tangled my feet in the lacy curtain, tripped, and crushed my curious spider friend.

I drew her furry brown legs, crisscrossed.

The next day, I repeated this exercise with the front door. I am not a scientist, and I do not stive for efficiency.